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Ubiquitous computing is now a thing: what was once confined to a desk or laptop has found its way into our pockets, our wrists, and even in front of our eyeballs. The Ubi – a relatively harmless looking kitchen appliance that you can talk to – wants to add itself to that list.
The Ubi is not unique: Amazon Echo launched with a bang late last year (as well as a little ridicule), but Ubi was technically there first. It’s also $300, three times as expensive as Amazon’s Echo if you factor in the Prime member discount – and comes without the backing and trust of a company the size of Amazon. On the other hand, the Echo isn’t widely available (not outside of America, and even within the US it’s undergoing an incredibly slow invitation only launch), but anyone can buy an Ubi.
At the end of this review, we’ll be giving away our Ubi review unit, once we’ve wiped its memories of all the devious things it has heard spoken in this house. Oh, and apologies in advance for all the HAL9000 references in this review. Couldn’t help it.
From the start, it was obvious this was an amateur offering at best. The mismatched grey USB cable makes it feel like this was a returned unit that was missing the right cable, so they just grabbed the closest thing they could find and sent it out to another hapless customer. The USB cable is used only for powering the Ubi – there’s no battery, so it must remain plugged in to the supplied 2a 5v power adaptor (you can use your own USB adaptor if you like though). Also in the package was a card describing the things you can say, which looked like it had been printed on a cheap inkjet.
The device itself is lightweight – too lightweight, really – and just doesn’t feel substantial enough. The shiny black plastic casing just adds to the feeling that this should be a $50 device, not $300.
Around the edge is a translucent line of plastic which glows to indicate various states, though doesn’t remain on all the time. Technically speaking, The Ubi runs Android 4.1 under the hood – though since there’s no way to interact with the Android system directly, it’s a minor detail.
I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.
After registering a username and logging in for the first time, a popup box appeared asking if I’d like to set up the Ubi now. Clicking yes took me back to the login screen. Attempting to login again from there resulted a Tomcat server error. Not great start. 1/10 for user friendliness.
Only by clicking cancel and ignoring the helpful prompts was I finally able to get the device added to my account, but it took another half hour or so wrangling with the website.
The Ubi portal is essential to its operation. If that goes down, as the community forums would indicate it has done before, then the Ubi is useless. Coming from an unknown startup (Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation, founded late 2012), of which its only product is the Ubi, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the product’s long term future. Perhaps I’m being unfair – newness is not a measure of how much a company can be trusted – but combined with the poorly made website and sloppy set up procedure, it’s fair to say that my expectations were lowered early in the review process.
Walking through the remainder of the setup process involves temporarily disconnecting your own Wi-Fi connection then attempting to connect to the Ubi, all while it obnoxiously plays Thus Spoke Zarathustra loudly on loop, because the Ubi makes no apologies in pretending to be HAL9000 for your home.
None of my Apple hardware could see the network though, even when sitting right next to it. I hopped over to a windows tablet to try there instead (and had more luck), but how a company can make Wi-Fi network that’s invisible to Apple devices is beyond me. Once the initial setup woes were overcome, it was relatively simple to type in my home network details, and was apparently all ready for use.
At that point, it seemingly did nothing, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed with the review. I tried talking to it calmly; I tried shouting at it; I tried pleading with it. Until I found the single button on the Ubi – labelled “U” – which changes between muted and ready state. For some really odd reason, green indicates that it’s muted, and blue is ready for input. Pro-tip: don’t use such stupid colors, guys. Green is obviously ready, and red should be off.
Putting the Ubi to Its Fullest Possible Use
To make Ubi listen, you say “Ok, Ubi”. Given practice, most of the time it works – pings into life ready to perform your command – though it still refused to recognise my wife’s attempts to communicate, and you really do need to enunciate very clearly each time. Anything outside of standard American English is probably going to present problems.
Speak your command, then wait for a response. On rare occasions, it won’t respond at all, seemingly predisposed with some other pressing task that computers often create for themselves, like defragging a hard drive or indexing every file you have while you’re trying to edit a video – though there is no indication of the command failure. Other times, it wont understand you at all. Sometimes, it’ll have an answer for you, but this only occurs after a good 5 to 10 seconds or more, and it might not be the answer you expecting.
Me: Ok Ubi. Who is the prime minister of the UK?
It can be frustratingly slow, and I don’t think it was the fault of my fiber broadband – be sure to watch the video demo to see it in action.
There are quite a few standard features you can ask the Ubi:
- Weather reports (restricted to Fahrenheit, even after adjusting the dashboard settings).
- Facts (the answers can be annoyingly verbose).
- Alarms and timers.
- Sensors for temperature, humidity, sound and light levels.
- Sending emails, once you’ve imported your contacts.
- Music, which worked for me once during testing, but then the API it was pulling music from apparently broke. Shortly before that, weather reporting was broken. And the SmartThings integration. This happens a lot.
Despite all this, I never really found a genuine use for it. That was probably wasn’t aided by the fact that pulling out my phone, unlocking it, launching Safari, and manually typing my query into Google, was often much faster than waiting for Ubi to respond. Here’s a useful tip for future start-ups: please don’t launch a bit of hardware that relies upon a web connection to your servers if you can’t afford the sort of infrastructure investment required to make that service fast enough.
There’s even an iOS app called UbiSPEAK [No Longer Available], which appears to be some kind of messaging app to send voice recordings to the countless friends you have that also own an Ubi. Jumping the gun a bit there, perhaps. It has a single 1-star rating, and they’ve erroneously listed their web address as theubi.cocm. All of which really doesn’t help with my initial suspicions about the device and the company behind it.
Open The Pod Bay Doors, HAL
Things get more exciting when you realise Ubi can be hooked into your existing smart home systems. Support is currently built-in for SmartThings hubs, Harmony Home all-in-one remotes, Wemo, and Nest thermostats. Philips Hue is a notable omission, and I suspect it’s because it doesn’t provide a web accessible API – commands you give the Ubi must go via the portal, then onto whatever service is requested, then back to your Ubi for a response. Controlling Hue bulbs would require local network communication with the Hue Bridge.
I was excited to try the Harmony integration, until I found it would only work with the Home series hardware, which is currently unavailable in the UK. This is Logitechs fault, and not a failing of the Ubi – the Home edition hardware is virtually identical to the Ultimate series, and the additional features could be enabled on the older Harmony systems with a simple software update that they’re reluctant to release yet. Sadly, I don’t own any of the other compatible smart home devices, so I was unable to test those.
Where the Ubi really shines however is its configurable commands, allowing you teach new voice controls that can trigger an HTTP request – so if you understand a particular web service API, you can configure a new command to send an outgoing HTTP request to that service, and an appropriate response from the data received. You can even respond to incoming events, such that hitting a uniquely generated portal URL can output a voice response on the Ubi. This isn’t a simple task by any means, but for real hacker types this kind of open web API is the holy grail. Anything that implements a web service can potentially be controlled from the Ubi – and that’s incredibly powerful in the right hands.
This Conversation Can Serve No Purpose Anymore. Goodbye.
My opinion is divided on the Ubi. Whilst simultaneously coming across as an appallingly amateur offering, slow to respond, buggy and difficult to set up; it’s also rather powerful, and could be the hacker’s dream interface to their ultimate smart home automation system. Perhaps if you restrict yourself to control commands only and don’t bother to wait for a response, it would be significantly less frustrating. Though you may still be waiting 10 seconds for it to actually turn your lights on, and who knows if the product will do anything at all in a year or so once the money has run out and the portal is offline.
The Amazon Echo is slowly catching up in terms of feature set, having recently added various smart home integrations. If Echo also had the ability to learn custom voice commands, I’d confidently say you can forget the Ubi – but it doesn’t. Is that extra feature alone worth the extra $200? I doubt it.
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